Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Tipperary Family Part 1

Slievenamon Photo:Trounce/Wikimedia Commons
     In the southeast corner of  Tipperary, the mountain known as Slievenamon rises over the surrounding plain.  Since ancient times it has been a place of worship, mystery and legend, the haunt of spirits, fairies and witches, its very name, Sliabh Na MBan, means, “mountain of the women”.  Visible for many miles, the dome shaped summit is crowned by a huge burial cairn, said to be the entrance to the Celtic underworld.  Charles Kickham, author of the novel Knocknagow, and one of Tipperary’s most beloved sons, wrote an ode known as “Slievenamon”, considered by Tipperary people everywhere to be their anthem.  There was however, an earlier song of the same name, it recalled a group of Irishmen killed by English soldiers near the slopes of the mountain during the doomed Rising of 1798.

     At that time, about 25 miles to the northwest of the mountain, lived two young men named Andrew O’Dwyer and Michael Ryan, both born in the mid 1770s.  From records of arrests that were made in the area where Andrew and Michael lived we know the United Irishmen were active there, though we will probably never know whether they themselves actually took part in the rising.

     Both the O’Dwyers and Ryans were important, powerful clans in the southern Tipperary baronies of Clanwilliam and Kilnamanagh until their overthrow by Oliver Cromwell in 1654.  Kevin Whelan, a history professor in Dublin, conducted a study of Irish families and discovered that the descendants of those who were large estate owners before Cromwell’s confiscations could often be found still living within ten miles of their ancestral homes.  This is borne out by the Ryans and O’Dwyers, who to the present day remain the most prevalent names in the area, and the landscape is dotted with ruins of O’Dwyer castles; one, Ballysheedy Castle, stands near Annacarty.  But the confiscations did come; the vast O’Dwyer and Ryan holdings were lost.

     According to John O’Hart, in his noted book, Irish Pedigrees, the O’Dwyer and O’Ryan families both descended from Milesius, the King who ruled Spain in 1600 B.C., and it would appear Mr. O’Hart may be correct.  Recent DNA tests were done on men with old Gaelic surnames, and their DNA was found to be virtually indistinguishable from that of the Basques of Northern Spain.

     Andrew and Michael were probably tenant farmers, or farm laborers who had known each other since boyhood.  We do know they had families.  Andrew and Anna O’Dwyer’s daughter, Alice would later marry Michael Ryan’s son Cornelius, raise a family of their own and in the decades to come, most of that family would make their way across the Atlantic to build a new life in America.  In the meantime, life was a constant struggle for the laboring classes in Ireland.  Early in Alice and Cornelius’ life they were acquainted with hunger and disease.  1816 has come to be known as the year without a summer.  That year, when they were teenagers, the entire world was hit by devastating climate change.  In Ireland cold rain fell for 142 of the 153 summer days.  The potato crop failed, and typhoid and food shortages swept Ireland and Europe.  
     Violence was part of their everyday lives too.  One official maintained,”Tipperary and Limerick are the two counties in Ireland where the peasantry are the worst disposed and most difficult to manage”.  From yet another,”With a stone of two and a half pounds weight, a Tipperary peasant will strike an object with as much precision at ten yards, as the generality of persons would at that distance with a pistol ball.” That fact inspired the nickname, “Tipperary Stone Throwers”
     Another form of violence sprang up in Tipperary, (naturally), this one seemingly for sheer enjoyment.  First reported there in 1805, faction fighting soon spread to other counties.  In 1836 over 100 faction fights were reported in a single county--Tipperary.  Factions were small armies of country people, hundreds or sometimes even thousands strong, armed with blackthorn sticks and stones.  They fought at fairs, markets or any public gathering.  To be sure, skulls and bones are broken, and lives lost; but they are lost in pleasant fighting - they are the consequences of the sport, the beauty of which consists in breaking as many heads as you can." (Views of Irish Peasantry, pg. 137).  

   While this seems like a highly romanticized view of a violent, deadly pastime, even when death did result, the authorities were not inclined to take it very seriously, as the inquest into the death of one Pat Phelan in 1857 demonstrates.  The coroner’s verdict--died from disease of the chest, accelerated by a fracture of the skull”.

Part 2 tomorrow

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